From Reality to Fantasy (Part 3): Carcel Lamps and Chemical Matches

Last time, I talked about some unique lighting ideas that could be used in fantasy set in medieval times or antiquity, but come on, you know I want to get to the steampunk stuff. I love writing in the 19th century because there is so much more to have fun with.


The Carcel Burner: Before coal gas could light and warm the 1872 home of Phileas Fogg in Saville Row, before the familiar kerosene hurricane lantern (kerosene as we know it didn’t really get going until 1854 or thereabouts), vegetable oil was an important fuel. Colza oil, which is a type of rapeseed oil, is a good fuel with a disadvantage — it can’t quite move up the wick like kerosene does. That’s no problem, because Bernard Guillaume Carcel, a watch-maker, patented a lamp in 1800 that used a clockwork pump to regulate an Argand lamp (Number 32, 33, and 34 in the picture above). The pump was submerged in the fuel tank and drove the oil up to the wick. You could wind this lamp up with a key, much like a pocketwatch, and it would burn evenly for 16 hours. You can see the Carcel lamp as Number 40 in the drawing above. More details here. Clockwork is awesome. But I haven’t seen anyone carrying about a clockwork torch. The mere detail of taking out a brass key and winding up your 16 hours of light can add a fascinating little touch to your world.

It also makes you wonder what other mechanisms could be powered by mainspring-driven clockwork.

Mainspring wind-up keys

Early Matches:  Though there were early friction matches (the 1820s or thereabouts), these competed with the chemical match. Much more dangerous — and way cooler in my opinion — chemical matches are the way my protagonist in The Adventures of Chadwick Yates lights his favorite cigars in the wild. They rely on the principle that potassium chlorate + sulfuric acid = fire.

In my Chadwick Yates stories, I use one historical version of this, in which a glass bulb of sulfuric acid is coated on the outside with potassium chlorate and wrapped in paper. I’m not sure if the historical versions had long hardwood stems like modern cigar matches, but I’ve put two and two together. The tip is wrapped in paper and some form of binder transmits the fire to the wood. Where it gets fun is how these matches are lit. Sure it’s cool to strike a true friction match on your boot or mantlepiece. But in my story they do it the real old fashioned way: you take a pair of pliers and crush the glass bulb, instantly starting the reaction and setting fire to the paper and then the stem of the match.

Phosphorus bottle pocket matches, 1828 - Joseph Allen Skinner Museum - DSC07746

Other historical versions of the chemical match had you carry around a little container made of asbestos. This is full of sulfuric acid. You dip the match head in to ignite it. Sure these kinds of matches went out of style as soon as something better came along, but this is fiction. While I’m not sure I’d want to inhale the fumes of these matches even to try it in a lab, I’m happy to expose my characters to the risk. By the way, the industrial production of matches was commonly done by women, was incredibly hazardous to one’s health (white phosphorus was a common ingredient for a while), and has an interesting history all on its own. For example, the London matchgirls strike of 1888.

Women working in a match factory
The history of the humble match is fascinating to read about. Collecting matches and matchboxes is called phillumeny, and Sweden even has a museum devoted to matches. Sound crazy? Consider that just a couple hundred years ago, before the match, people were carrying tinderboxes and still using flint and steel. Easy access to fire is closer to our times than you would think.

 So there’s two ideas from the strange and wonderful subject of history that I think most writers would be hard-pressed to think up while staring at a wall. We’ve seen clockwork, biofuels, and early chemistry play a part.

Please comment if you found this helpful, and let me know what kinds of things you’d like to see more of.

-Bradley Verdell


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